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Warning signs

Days your student shouldn't fly

Every instructor has been there: You're halfway through the session and it's obvious the student's head isn't in the game. He's not doing what you ask of him; he doesn't seem to be himself; he is distracted or annoyed with himself. The hour is not going well. So, do we pull the plug and lose a half-hour of revenue-producing flying time? Or do we keep plowing ahead hoping it'll get better?

The short answer is we stop. Actually, the only answer is "we stop." To continue knowing what kind of condition the student is in is worse than cheating - it's stealing. If we were to continue, the student not only wouldn't learn anything, but he may actually slide backwards, and that's stealing. (See "Strategic Retreat," page 28.)

We often think a bad day is caused by something going so wrong that it has us yelling and screaming, and everyone knows we won't be performing at our best. In the flight training environment, however, a bad day for a student is much more subtle. For whatever reason, she simply can't focus on the job at hand, and it needn't be a day when the walls are falling in. Sometimes it's obvious where the problems lie - losing a job, for instance - while other times neither the student nor the instructor has a clue as to what's causing the problem.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of times when the student thinks he is just fine, when he definitely isn't. Or the student will come out to the airport knowing he's in a funk but hoping that the airplane will perk him up. Either way, it's up to the instructor - not the student - to detect this. Then it's up to the instructor to figure out a way to handle the situation constructively.

We don't have to be around a student very long before we begin to get a sense of what a "normal day" is for them; this is the way they are most of the time, so this must be normal. Some people are naturally nervous, for instance, and you have to be around them in and out of the airplane long enough to know that's just the way they are. Maybe they are naturally irritable or super quiet or a little obnoxious.

The important thing for instructors to know is when they have deviated from normal. Again, however, deviations vary from person to person. If a perpetually cheerful student is morose and irritable, obviously something is wrong. That's a no-brainer. If the person is one of the quiet, thoughtful ones, and she is suddenly cheerful and verbose, you have no way of knowing what's going on, but you do know the student isn't normal. Something has altered her mental attitude, and you have to keep your antennae up to see if it's a change for the better or worse.

Often you'll know in advance that there has been some sort of significant episode in their lives that is bound to have an effect, and you need to watch for it. Losing a job, for instance, will throw some people into a tizzy. Other folks in the same situation will simply shrug their shoulders, look at it as a vacation, and soldier on. But how will it affect their learning abilities?

You don't have to wait until they are in the cockpit to know all is not right with their world. There are many indications that you can look for while you're still on the ground, and you'll want to pay particular attention to these:

  • Body language that is unusually tense.

  • Vocal characteristics may be sharper than normal. If you ask her a question or give her a direction, does she respond with impatience and annoyance?

  • You'll be talking to her and in mid-sentence you see her eyes drift off. She may be looking directly at you but then her eyes wander off into space. This is a sure sign of distraction.

  • His face is tight. He may not have scowl lines, but his facial muscles are tight enough to change the surface tension of his skin.

  • During the preflight briefing he can't stand in one spot, or if sitting, his feet or hands are always moving.

In the cockpit a mind that is distracted will almost always be erratic and slow. You'll see the student start to reach for something, the mixture for instance, hesitate, think about it, and then possibly grab the carb heat instead. The hesitation and indecisiveness are the giveaways, and this is no reason to even think about stopping a flight. It is, however, nature's way of telling you to keep your eyes open.

Again, what we're looking for is a change in behavior. This is difficult to detect in brand-new students. Once you've flown with them for a few hours, you begin to form a firm opinion about their capabilities and how they perform certain tasks. For instance, even while they are in the process of learning something as simple as rectangular patterns, you can tell when they aren't concentrating because they suddenly start ignoring the rudder in the turns, which they had never done before. Or on takeoff they forget to bring the flaps up and forget to bring the power back to climb settings and ignore the trim, preferring to push rather than retrim the airplane. They know better, but they aren't thinking. Their mind is definitely elsewhere.

In some cases, they will be distracted by something in their life they've brought into the cockpit with them. Other times, they will simply be having a bad day in the cockpit. The results, however, are almost identical: they will try something you've told them. They don't do it well, so you have them try again. It still doesn't work, and here's where you start monitoring their attitude. This is when an hour of instruction can turn into an hour of destruction.

Quite often a person who is having trouble learning a new skill will get irritated at himself. That's normal. What is not normal is for the frustration to build up to the point that the student is fighting himself. He gets frustrated, so he tries harder, but fails - which frustrates him more.

If students get angry and frustrated, it's time for the instructor to step in. At this point you can praise them for what they've done right, change directions, and start working on some other maneuver. Unfortunately, however, sometimes these efforts are fruitless. They've started a downward mental and emotional spiral, and you must decide whether to toss in the towel.

There aren't too many things more damaging to a student's growing confidence than letting him keep trying when it's obvious his brain isn't behind the effort. To continue trying while knowing he is likely to keep failing will make a bad situation worse. Sometimes the situation escalates from mild irritation to emotional damage in just two or three extra laps around the pattern. We always want to stop a few minutes short of that threshold because once we're past it, we can't retract any damage that's been done.

So, how do we know we're about the cross the line? The answer is that we don't know, so we always want to be conservative. If we see a lesson going bad, start looking for reasons to shorten it. It's nearly impossible to cause problems by quitting early. It is, however, very possible to cause damage by pushing too hard to complete the hour. When in doubt, call it quits. In the long run, both of you will profit from the decision.

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor who has written approximately 2,200 articles and has flown more than 300 different types of aircraft. A CFI for 36 years, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.

By Budd Davisson

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